GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers has thrown as many interceptions in the first week of training camp as he threw all last season, but there’s a good reason for it.
Most of Rodgers’ five picks in team drills so far have occurred on what are called 50-50 balls – when a receiver and defensive back are one-on-one downfield, both with a shot to make a play, but only one of them can.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged that Rodgers will try more of those throws in camp than he would on Sundays, but they have their purpose. It’s Rodgers’ way of testing his receivers and finding out who he can count on when the passes are for real.
“That’s what camp is all about, sorting those things out,” Rodgers said on Thursday. “Seeing who’s going to be sticking around for the season and who’s going to be looking for a job. You have to show it in practice in order for me to feel comfortable making those throws in the games.
“That’s what this is all about. You make some of these throws and see how the guys respond.”
So far, the response has been mixed. Rodgers’ fifth interception of camp came on Thursday on a deep ball to Jeff Janis. It was slightly underthrown, and undrafted rookie cornerback LaDarius Gunter out-fought Janis for the ball.
Janis has won his share, too, and give credit to the Packers’ defensive backs for a strong start to camp in terms of playing the ball in the air. The two sides have gone back and forth, which is why they’re called 50-50 balls. Later in practice, Davante Adams beat Gunter on a short jump ball from Rodgers in the end zone.
Just as Rodgers’ decisions may be different in camp than they would be in a real game, so might the receivers’ actions, according to veteran Jordy Nelson. He explained that a 50-50 ball in camp can put a receiver in a tough spot, because he’s always going to try to make the catch no matter what, whereas in a game, a receiver in a disadvantageous position might break up the pass and make sure it’s not picked off.
Right now, in early August, no one is going to give up the chance to shine, especially when on the field with the two-time MVP.
“We want to have that opportunity,” Nelson said. “We want to gain the trust of the quarterback that if he throws it up, we’ll come down, us or nobody, and make the play. We want those chances. Practice is a good time for it.”
So the five interceptions through six practices – matching the five picks Rodgers threw in 520 regular-season passes last year – are no cause for concern.
“He’s shown through the years that he will take care of the ball come in-season,” Nelson said. “It makes complete sense what he’s trying to do, especially with some younger guys to see if they will compete for that ball and go get it.”
To be clear, though, the ultra-competitive quarterback still doesn’t like seeing his passes intercepted, and he called on his receivers to do better than 50-50.
“I’d like to see those balls come up our way,” Rodgers said.
For the most part, though, Rodgers still had his way in red-zone and goal-line work on Thursday. In addition to the short fade to Adams, he twice hit tight end Richard Rodgers for touchdowns, once by lofting a throw in the middle over linebacker Sam Barrington and again on a scramble with the tight end boxing out safety Jean Fanor in the end zone.
The pass-catching Rodgers marred an otherwise good day as practice wrapped up, though, when he fumbled after a reception on a hit from safety Sean Richardson. The offense was working on a game-ending, four-minute drive, needing a first down to run out the clock. The fumble set up a third-and-long that wasn’t converted.
The No. 2 offense did convert the clutch situation, as Scott Tolzien finished another strong workout by zipping a third-down pass to Janis. Earlier in practice, Tolzien also hit a couple of big passes to Ty Montgomery and Myles White, while his only blemish was a pass deflected by linebacker Carl Bradford and intercepted by diving rookie cornerback Quinten Rollins in the end zone.
“The second unit is really a good unit,” Rodgers said of the offense Tolzien is leading. “That second line is as good as we’ve had in a while, and he’s got Myles and Ty making plays for him. It’s a good second unit, but Scott’s doing a great job and deserves a lot of credit.”